How to cook a turkey? Don’t waste your time with other posts. Here’s the plain truth: The secret to perfect turkey is proper control of turkey temperature. And that’s our jam. Use whatever recipe you like—deep-fry it, smoke it, roast it, whatever. But neglect these fundamental principles at your own peril!
Turkey Doneness Temperature
Turkey Doneness Temp: 157°F (69°C) in the breast—not 165°F!, and 175°F/b> (79°C) in the thigh for moist turkey. (Read more below to see why this is safe.)
HOW TO COOK A TURKEY AT A GLANCE: COOKING TIME AND MORE
- Thawing: You need to verify that your turkey is fully thawed before putting it in the oven or smoker or fryer to avoid disaster. Best thaw method is in the fridge—1 day per 5 lbs.
- Internal Temp Tracking: Track internal turkey temps while roasting, if you can. Place an alarm thermometer probe in the thickest part of the breast (another in the thigh).
- Oven Temps: Best roasting is two stage process—450°F (232°C) for 1 hour, then down to 325°F (163°C) for however long it takes until the turkey is done. If you read a post telling you exactly “how long to cook a turkey,” hit the back button fast.
- Verify Turkey Doneness: Be sure to verify your doneness temps with an instant-read thermometer. The lowest reading you find should be 157°F (69°C) in the breast or put it back in the oven or smoker a little longer.
How to Cook a Turkey in Depth: Everything You Need to Know
No other holiday has such a laser focus on a single piece of food—the Thanksgiving Turkey. If the turkey isn’t right, the day gets an asterisk. If the turkey is just perfect, everyone somehow feels more thankful. To say nothing about the real danger of food poisoning with poultry! And YET, how often do you cook a whole turkey during the other 364 days of the year? Maybe at Christmas? Maybe never? Cooking a perfect Thanksgiving Turkey on cue is a little like being called in to throw the winning touchdown when you haven’t touched a football all year. But don’t worry. We’ve got you covered.
Now that you’ve reviewed the “at a glance” headlines, it’s time to dig a little deeper. Let’s start with some of the most common questions…
How Long To Cook A Turkey?
Perhaps the question people ask most about cooking a turkey is “how long it is going to take?” Charts and posts about turkey cooking times abound promising “Turkey Cook Times,” but they all share the same fundamental flaw—no chart can take into account all the variables that can actually affect your particular turkey’s actual cooking time…
Things that Change the Rate of Cooking…
- The accuracy of your oven or smoker (most ovens are off their set point by 25-50°F [14-28°C])
- The type of oven (conventional, convection)
- Uneven heating flow in your oven
- Where the turkey is positioned in the oven or smoker
- The depth and size of the pan
- The type of roasting pan: whether it’s dark, shiny, or dull
- Using a roasting pan with a lid (don’t do this BTW)
- The exact size of your turkey
- It’s shape dimensions relative to other turkeys
- The fat content of your turkey
- How warm it was when it went into the oven or smoker
- Whether it was completely thawed or still partially frozen
- Whether it was tented with foil or not
- Whether it is stuffed or unstuffed
So, can you trust a turkey time chart to make sure your turkey is a) done enough to be safe to eat or b) not dry and tasteless? No, you cannot. Time charts do have their use. They help you estimate when to start cooking your turkey relative to dinner time. But for delicious turkey, you want to cook your turkey until it is done and not a moment longer.
What Temperature is Turkey Done?
Click on almost any other “how to cook a turkey” post and you’ll see the same bad information repeated over and over. But despite what they all say, you absolutely should NOT cook your turkey breast meat to 165°F (74°C) or to—heaven forbid—180°F (82°C)!
Our answer? Cook the breast meat to 157°F (69°C) for moist, juicy turkey.
Bone dry turkey white meat is the reason so many people kind of hate turkey. It’s also why turkey gravy and cranberry sauce are de rigueur on so many Thanksgiving dinner tables. But if you’ve ever eaten properly cooked turkey white meat, you know it can be moist and absolutely delicious without any added condiment!
Two Different Types of Meat
Part of the challenge here is that a whole turkey actually has two very different types of meat on the same bird: the lean and tender white meat of the breast and the heavily worked dark meat of the legs and thighs. Cooking them at the same time is a little like trying to cook a steak and a brisket in the same oven. Since the dark meat, like a brisket, needs higher temperatures for the collagen to melt, our recommendation for the tender dark meat is 175-180°F (79-82°C)! (Read more here about how to achieve both temps in the same bird.)
Is It Safe T Eat?
The other challenge is that people misinterpret the food safety tables put out by the USDA. Achieving a reduction of the poultry pathogen Salmonella is a function of both time and temperature. Note this screenshot from the USDA’s own tables on turkey safety…
This shows that a turkey held at 157°F (69°C) for 50.4 seconds will achieve the same lethality on Salmonella as a turkey cooked to 165°F (74°C) does instantaneously. And what are the odds that a turkey pulled at 157°F (69°C) will remain at that temp for at least a minute? 100% because of something called Carryover Cooking. The temperature is actually guaranteed to keep going up for a spell after you remove it from the oven or smoker.
Meanwhile the white meat in turkey will start to expel its water in the 150’s F (60’s C) and be bone dry by the time it reaches 165°F (74°C).
Do your family a favor this Thanksgiving. Pull your turkey from the oven or smoker at 157°F (69°C). But remember to verify!
With those big questions out of the way, let’s get down to brass tacks. Here’s the best advice you’ll find on how to cook an amazing turkey. It starts right up front with the thaw…
PART 1: HOW TO THAW A TURKEY
It’s often overlooked but the first key to delicious turkey is proper thawing. You can actually cook a fully frozen turkey and, of course, you can cook a fully thawed turkey. But cooking a turkey that is partially thawed and partially frozen on Thanksgiving morning is a recipe for disaster.
A partially frozen turkey will cook unevenly. By the time the inner frozen area thaws and comes to its pull temperature, the outermost layers of the turkey will be woefully overcooked.
THE BEST METHOD: HOW TO DEFROST A TURKEY IN THE FRIDGE
The best way to get an evenly thawed turkey is the slow and gentle way. It takes a little forethought and making some room in your fridge but is the easiest method, as well.
Put your frozen turkey breast-side UP on a rimmed sheet pan or tray in your refrigerator set to 37°F (3°C).
Allow at least 24 hours for every 5-6 pounds (2.3–2.7 kg) of frozen turkey. A 20-pound (9.1 kg) turkey will take 4 full days to thaw in a refrigerator.
TURKEY THAW DAY
For almost all turkey sizes, the Saturday before Thanksgiving is the perfect day to place your frozen turkey in the refrigerator—allowing plenty of time for thawing without letting the thawed turkey overstay it’s welcome in the fridge before cooking. So mark “Turkey Thaw Day” on your calendar now!
SPEED THAW METHOD
If you don’t have several days at your disposal, you can try the speed method.
Water has a much greater molecular density than air. Heat transfer from the molecularly dense water to the frozen turkey happens much faster than in air. You will need to allow at least 30 minutes per pound (per .45 kg), so it will still take some time.
Place your unopened turkey (it must be in airtight wrapping) breast-side DOWN in a cooler and fill with cold water to cover. Your turkey may float at first, that’s okay. It will begin to sink as it thaws./p>
Use an alarm thermometer like the ChefAlarm® with its high alarm set to 41°F(4.5°C) to track the water temperature during a water thaw. (If you like, you can also take advantage of the ChefAlarm’s built-in timer to keep track of your hours.) Or spot-check the water’s temperature every half hour with an instant-read thermometer like a Thermapen, and add ice to keep the water at 40°F (4.4°C) or below. This is very important! If the water gets above 40°F (4.4°C) while the turkey is thawing, bacteria may begin to growthat could survive the cook.
This process may require 1-2 large bags of ice—so be prepared.
VERIFYING THAT YOUR TURKEY IS THAWED
Whichever method you use, you should ALWAYS verify that the internal temperature of your turkey is above freezing BEFORE putting it in the oven or smoker. Again, you can actually cook a frozen turkey and, of course, you can cook a thawed turkey, but you can’t cook a partially thawed, partially frozen turkey. If the center of the turkey is still frozen, by the time it comes to a food-safe temperature, the outside meat will be burned to a crisp.
Using a fast and accurate instant-read thermometer, like Thermapen ONE, push the probe tip through the wrapper, deep into the breast and pull it out noting the temperature reading as it changes. The lowest temperature you see should be 30°F (-1°C) or above (and, of course, below the danger zone—40°F [4.4°C]). Check in several places. Check deep in the thigh and next to the neck cavity too.
If you encounter ice with the probe, or see a temperature reading below 30°F (-1°C), continue thawing using either method above until the turkey is fully thawed.
PART 2: PREP YOUR TURKEY SKIN FOR THE OVEN OR SMOKER
One of the most delicious parts of a properly cooked turkey is crispy skin. And crispy skin after cooking starts with DRY skin before cooking. Water on the surface of the meat will slow down the cook, and cause uneven browning. The heat of the oven or smoker must first work to evaporate the surface moisture before the cooking really begins.
So, prep your turkey skin by either drying or, better yet, dry brining your turkey skin before cooking.
Pat your turkey dry with paper towels right before cooking. (This is particularly important if you wet-brined your turkey in saltwater). Be sure to get the entire surface of the turkey (even the inside surface of the main cavity and neck cavity) nice and dry before seasoning.
Slather on the butter or oil and spices (whatever your recipe calls for) and start cooking.
Optionally, get even crispier skin and juicier, more flavorful turkey meat by dry-brining your bird. Dry brining is essentially air-drying your turkey. After applying your spices (we prefer just plain salt and pepper), leave your uncovered in the refrigerator on a baking tray for the morning (8 hours) before or the entire day before (24 hours) cooking your turkey.
PART 3: TRACKING YOUR TURKEY’S INTERNAL TEMPERATURE
TWO THERMOMETERS ARE BETTER THAN ONE
The more uniform a piece of meat is in shape and size, the more evenly it will cook. (This is why we tie up roasts and butterfly some cuts of meat before cooking them.) Needless to say, whole turkeys are anything but uniform in shape! The breasts are thick at one end and tapered toward the other, while the legs are quite a bit smaller. These different areas of the turkey simply will not cook at the same rate.
That’s why it’s important both to track your cooking temp with a cooking alarm thermometer like Smoke X, ChefAlarm, or DOT (sometimes called a “leave-in probe thermometer” or an “oven thermometer”) and to verify your doneness temps with a fast and accurate instant-read thermometer. Two different thermometers for two different but very important jobs.
If you only have one, the instant-read is the more important, since it allows you to verify doneness temperature in multiple places. But each time you open the oven door or the smoker lid to check on your turkey temps, you’re likely to reduce the internal temperature of the oven or smoker by as much as 50°F(28°C). Each time!
But with an alarm thermometer, you’ll be able to track your turkey’s internal cooking temperature from outside the oven or smoker, so you won’t miss the critical moment when your turkey is done!
Remember, your goal is to cook your turkey breast to exactly 157°F (69°C) and not one degree more before removing it from the oven, smoker, or frier.